We recently kicked off a blog series specifically focused on company culture, and we started by honing in on what culture is and why it matters. In our previous blog, we identified three core reasons why company culture matters and a key theme emerged: the importance of servant leadership. I believe that the notion of being a servant leader always contributes to a great company culture, and there are again, three themes that I believe reinforce servant leadership. Before we dive in, it’s important to identify what servant leadership is. Unfortunately, most often leaders within organizations are only seen as “the boss”, and if you’re really unlucky, a boss who confuses leadership with dictatorship. This typically does not foster growth, engagement or a positive company culture, and can actually lead to retention issues and a toxic culture. A servant leader understands all of the knowledge and skills their team members bring to the company and works to help develop their abilities.
Leader vs. Manager
There’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review from a few years ago that noted managers “count value”, and leaders “create value,” and this couldn’t be more true. While a manager can most certainly be a leader, and that should be the ultimate goal, it can be very challenging for most to make that merge. When leaders create value, they are empowering their team to solve a problem, handle a project or create innovation without micromanaging and/or taking on all of the work for themselves. Servant leaders then take that a step further and recognize those who have completed their work and never disregard those who bring other ideas to the team. They also act as a support system for their team and help develop their skills so that the company can benefit. We are then left with the question of, “How do I build servant leaders”? It isn’t a skill that the manager can develop overnight and is often embedded in your company culture. When you create a company culture that values new ideas, encourages learning and development and focuses on diverse thinking, it tends to breed servant leaders-not just managers.
What’s one good way to be sure you rarely (if ever) have servant leaders within your organization? A toxic culture. A culture that focuses on checking items off a list, follows a rule list rigidly, and leaves no room for diversity of thought is a sure-fire way to create a toxic culture with dictator-like managers. This kind of culture stifles creativity and innovation which leads to a lack of growth and rapid attrition. So how do you know if your company has a toxic culture (hint: you probably already have an inkling that your employees are not engaged), and your leadership is suffering? This can be discovered through a few fairly easy tactics, but the most important and often challenging part for organizations is what they do after they learn their culture is toxic. You have to be willing to get messy and roll up your sleeves, and ask your employees for their honest feedback, while ensuring they understand it won’t affect their job security. Enlist the support of a third party or your core team to disperse employee engagement surveys, focus groups and learning/development trainings. Once you have a grip on what your core issues are, you have to then commit to making the changes necessary for positive company growth. It is at that point you can work with your management and leadership teams on the importance of a positive company culture and how to be servant leaders.
Lead with Courage
Leaders continually play a balancing act between reinforcing guidelines, while also having the courage to stand up for the good of the team. It’s an ongoing learning process and to have truly courageous and servant leaders, you must build a culture rooted in vulnerability and honesty. Managers and leaders are not perfect, and if they don’t have buy-in from the executive team, they won’t have the courage to be vulnerable and stand up for their team or the courage to foster new ideas. By creating an open-door culture where all ideas are welcome and vulnerability is encouraged, leaders can truly be advocates for their team; and when leaders are advocates-employees feel valued. A positive company culture starts at the very top and when we lead, manage and advocate with courage, our employees continue to remain connected to the organization leading to engagement and ultimately, growth.